Lana Jokel And Larry Rivers: An Unexpected Partnership

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It was late—too late for documentarian Lana Jokel to drive home. And her subject, iconic artist Larry Rivers, was feeling frisky.Crashing on the couch of his Palm Beach villa was out of the question, Mr. Rivers insisted. She would go to bed with him. He was testing her patience.

“You’re going to sleep with me,” he teased. “Upstairs.”

“I don’t want to do that,” she snapped.

“Sure you do,” he prodded.

“Listen, Larry,” she started. “I’m not your type. I’m too thin. I’m too old. And I don’t have big boobs.”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind having you for one night,” he responded, unfazed. “For our friendship’s sake.”

She paused, reconsidered her retaliation and, instead, burst into laughter.

“Nothing happened,” the Bridgehampton part-timer recalled last week, as she retold the circa-1992 story during a telephone interview from her home in Miami, Florida. “That’s just typical Larry sense of humor.”

Instead of an impassioned night together, a different milestone has consummated their 30-year platonic relationship—“Larry Rivers Public & Private,” a 90-minute look into the life of the late controversial figure. The film will close the sixth annual Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival on Sunday, December 8, when the 73-year-old documentarian will receive the Filmmaker’s Choice Award.

Ms. Jokel first met the artist in 1972. She was breaking into her filmmaking career—working under the likes of D A Pennebaker, who is also being honored during the festival on Saturday, and writer Norman Mailer. Mr. Rivers, at this point an accomplished artist, was just learning how to use a video camera.

That summer, they both found themselves at the East Hampton cottage of Andy Warhol. She was editing the pop artist’s film, “Heat,” and he was simply visiting an old friend.

Mr. Rivers was outrageous, outspoken and one of the few on the scene using videotape instead of 16-millimeter film. Ms. Jokel was immediately impressed and intrigued—especially when they started to argue.

“As I got to know him better, I would disagree with him and the things he believed and said. He’s very honest,” she said. “He is who he is, and I adored him. He also liked the fact that I was very open, even though I’m Chinese. Chinese people are supposed to be very diplomatic and calm. Well, I’m not.”

The dramatic and emotional side of her personality—which she attributes to her upbringing in Brazil after moving from Shanghai—has gotten Ms. Jokel far in her filmmaking career. She is unafraid to ask the provocative questions. And she had plenty for Mr. Rivers—from his personal and professional life to some of his more questionable artistic choices, such as interviewing his two adolescent daughters, naked or topless, about puberty on-camera.

“The film on Larry is not just him as a painter, but about him the person,” she said. “As an artist. As a musician. As a father. As a husband. As a lover. As a friend. As a writer. It’s all in it. Because we were already close friends, he was very open with me. He can be very this and that, but I think lots of people misunderstand him. He always comes on strong, but in the end, he’s okay. There’s a side to him very few people know.”

He never belonged to the abstract expressionists or the pop artists. He did what he wanted on his own time—including touching up his sideburns with a dark pencil—regardless of his predecessors or art history, Ms. Jokel said, carving his own niche from his studio in Southampton. Outside, he installed a pair of 16-foot-high fiberglass legs—irritating neighbors and amusing friends who passed under them to get inside.

“I was filming him in front of the legs and he said, ‘You know, these legs are great because I would always know when people go by my house. They always screech to a stop when they see them,’” Ms. Jokel said. “He has a wonderful sense of humor, that’s for sure.”

They wrapped filming on “Larry Rivers Public & Private” in May 1993, the same month Ms. Jokel’s father fell ill in Brazil. He died soon after, leaving a grieving daughter to do what she does best: pour herself into her work. The documentary film was finished four months later.

“It saved me, in a way, because I could concentrate on something that was very important to me, not get buried in my sadness. I dedicated it to my father,” she said of the film. “The interesting thing, my father never believed very much in my work. ‘Why are you not happily married with a bunch of kids?’ I said, ‘Oh God, that’s so boring.’

“I’ve always known I was different from the age of 13, and I love what I do,” she continued. “Because these films, when I see them finished on the screen, my heart is beating so fast and loud that it feels like it’s going to jump out of my body. ‘And there you go again, so dramatic and emotional.’ But it’s true. Happiness to different people means different things.”

The last time Ms. Jokel saw Mr. Rivers was August 12, 2002. He was lying on his bed, set up in his Southampton living room, with his eyes closed.

“Larry, Larry,” she said.

He opened his eyes and looked at his longtime friend.

“Let me give you a little gentle massage on your feet,” she said.

When he didn’t object—“I was brought up that if you’re fond of someone, the nicest thing you can do is massage them,” Ms. Jokel said—she delicately rubbed his soles and toes for about 15 minutes. He never said thank you or even smiled, she said, but she still left happy.

Two days later, he was gone. But every time she watches the film they made together, he is with her again.

“It’s a wonderful way of keeping these things, these works of art, these legacies alive,” she said. “This way, he is alive.”

“Larry Rivers Public and Private” will screen on Sunday, December 8, at 7 p.m. at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. A Q&A with Lana Jokel, who received this year’s Filmmaker’s Choice Award during the sixth annual Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival, will follow. Tickets are $15 and $13 for seniors. A festival pass is $100, which includes all screenings and events. For more information, call 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.

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